John Ledyard was the Connecticut-born son of a wealthy sea captain. But he was such a ne’er-do-well the family cut him out of its fortune. So he went to sea with Capt. James Cook on his third voyage.
Ledyard was born in Groton, Conn., in November 1751, and led a life of adventure.
He briefly attended Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., until he got kicked out. He once paddled a dugout canoe 140 miles down the Connecticut River to Hartford to visit his grandfather. No white man had made the trip before. The Ledyard Canoe Club, part of the Dartmouth Outing Club, takes an annual canoe trip down the river in his honor.
Ledyard then shipped out for a year-long voyage to Gibralter, the Caribbean and the Barbary Coast. He jumped ship in England on his next voyage, but the British Navy impressed him into the British Navy. As a British marine he joined Cook’s third voyage in 1776.
John Ledyard left two legacies from his voyage with Cook. He was convinced a fortune could be made selling sea-otter fur to China. He then instigated the China Trade by finding financing for a voyage to Canton in 1784. The success of that venture led to decades of lucrative trade with China, which provided the capital for commercial expansion in the United States.
His other legacy was his diary during Cook’s voyage, published in 1783 and the first work to be protected by a U.S. copyright. On Aug. 14, 1777, he recorded landing on the island of Otaheite (now known as Tahiti) in the Society Islands.
They anchored in a small bay on the east side of the island. The inhabitants immediately surrounded them. “[T]he little village within the bay was full of people dancing and running about with joy at our arrival,” he wrote.
Their joy increased when they learned Cook had arrived, known among them from a former voyage. Cook and others went ashore, where to their surprise they found a nine-foot-high wooden cross. It had an inscription in Latin that said two Spanish ships had arrived in February 1777. They took possession of the island in the name of his Catholic majesty, Ledyard wrote.
“This was also confirmed by many subsequent appearances as well as from the informations of the inhabitants,” he wrote.
They also found a wooden house built “a little in the European style.” Inside they discovered a mahogany chest with a Spanish lock. “This the natives readily opened and showed us several Spanish garments, which they said belonged to a man the Spaniards had left there, who was now dead,” he wrote. They then explained the Spaniards had taken three of the natives with them when they went away. “[W]hen we asked where they came from they pronounced the word Rema, which we made no doubt was Lima in Spanish America.”
“We also found afterwards that the Spaniards had left several American hogs and a bull and a cow, among them, but the two latter were dead,” he wrote. “What the purpose of this visit from the Spaniards could be time must discover.”
The Englishmen then took the cross the Spaniards had erected and erased their inscription. After replacing it with one in favor of his Britannic Majesty, they erected it again in the place from which they took it,” wrote Ledyard.
The Rest of the Story
Cook’s purpose during his third voyage was to locate a Northwest Passage around North America. Instead, he began contact with the Hawaiian Islands and mapped most of the northwest coast of North America. When he returned to Hawaii, he tried to kidnap King Kalaniʻōpuʻu. The villagers stabbed him to death along with four marines.
The expedition returned to England. Ledyard, still a British marine, was ordered to Canada to fight the American Revolution. Instead he deserted and found his way to Dartmouth, There he wrote his Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage, the first work in North America to be protected by copyright.
Ledyard helped set in motion the China trade by urging people like Robert Morris and John Paul Jones to finance voyages to trade sea otter for Chinese porcelain, silk and tea.
He then went to Paris, where U.S. Ambassador Thomas Jefferson encouraged him to explore the western United States by going through Russia, traversing the Bering Strait and then heading south from Alaska. Ledyard got financing from the Marquis de Lafayette and made it to Yakutsk. However, Catherine the Great ordered him arrested and had him deported to Poland.
He then went to Egypt to start an expedition from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. However, he accidentally poisoned himself with vitriolic acid.
John Ledyard died Jan. 10, 1789, and was buried in the sand dunes along the Nile.
This story was updated in 2022.